Can Big Data help Governments deliver better services?

April 3, 2017


The Indian Space Research Organization launched a flock of 104 satellites into space over the course of 18 minutes on February 15, 2017.

Indian Space Research Organization

  • Understanding big data involves deeper collaboration with the public and private sectors on data with private sector, academia, and NGOs to be effective
  • Big data means big analysis. Governments will need to encourage specialized education and training of analytical talent to fulfill the increased demand in the workforce for data scientists and engineers
  • Big data needs strong institutional arrangements, including technical and legal frameworks that create the conditions ethical and responsible use of big data for policy and service innovation

“Government of the Future” was the theme of this year’s World Government Summit (WGS) in Dubai. The annual WGS is three-day international high-level conference hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with more than 4,000 participants, and over 100 distinguished global leaders from over 120 countries.

Keynotes from World Bank Group President, Jim Yong Kim, IMF Managing Director, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres; IMF Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, and UNDP Administrato, Helen Clark, interchanged with insights from private sector visionaries, Elon Musk CEO of Tesla and Space X and Reid Hoffman, CEO of LinkedIn, and highlighted the rapid and accelerating pace of change confronting governments all over the world. A world in which artificial intelligence, augmented reality, micro-satellites, self-driving cars and personal aerial vehicles are either production ready, or will be much sooner than expected.

This was a fitting backdrop for the World Bank’s high-level panel and technical workshop on the topic of “Big Data: The Next Frontier of Government”. Organized by the Bank’s Global Governance Practice and Big Data team, the panel was moderated by BBC technology correspondent, Rory Cellen-Jones.

Cellen-Jones opened with a story about a day he spent without technology or any big data—a day without his smart phone apps, no credit card transaction, no loyalty points, no Google Search, Netflix, not even public transport. Rory did not have a great day!

Big data is a term widely used to describe the exponential growth of data, particularly the data flowing from mobile phones, satellites, ground sensors, and social media. It also explains the rise of the computing technologies and algorithms that use big data for valuable insights. In the public sector, big data typically refers to the use of non-traditional data sources and data innovations to make government solutions more responsive and effective. 

Joining the panel to discuss how big data can contribute to smarter, more responsive public services, policy design, and civic engagement were:

●        Cheow Hoe Chan, Government Chief Information Officer, Singapore

●        Brandon Barnett, Director of Corporate Strategy, Intel Corporation

●        Robbie Schingler, Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer of Planet

●        Deborah Wetzel, Senior Director, Governance Global Practice, World Bank

Rory Cellen-Jones reminded the audience that today the average person is exposed to as much data in one day as a person in the 15th century would see their entire life as he asked the panelists to share their experiences with the audience.

Robbie Schingler from Planet explained that he and his colleagues – all ex-NASA data scientists – were about to travel to India for a record-setting launch of 88 micro-satellites-satellites into orbit. Planet now has the largest fleet of satellites in history, or “Doves”, providing a daily stream of real-time images of the Earth, that governments can use to understand urban and ecological changes, such as floods and forest fires, at unparalleled detail and scale. The image resolution of a “Dove” is so high it will even let you count the numbers of cars on the dock of a port!

In our new world economy, public organizations, and private firms alike must be able to recognize and respond to change. Today, it may be more important to understand flows, mobility and volatility than traditional static indicators. Singapore Chief Information Officer, Cheow Hoe Chan, explained how the Government of Singapore is using real-time data from ground sensors and Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) chips to improve public transport and citizen mobility.

Brandon Barnett, Director of Corporate Strategy, from Intel discussed strategy as systems transformation, and tossed a book in the air to show how it is important to understand that hidden forces are at work that affect the trajectory of physical and socio-technical systems, especially when it comes to the digital world. The book did not fall to the ground in a straight line!

Another important topic discussed by panelists was how to use big data to improve services provided by government such as water or education, without compromising citizen privacy and rights.

Deborah Wetzel, Senior Director for the World Bank’s Governance Global Practice, shared examples of how the World Bank is using big data to improve service delivery in public health and in procurement reform. Ms. Wetzel underscored the importance of “public-private partnerships and strong institutional environments”, as discussed in the World Bank’s the 2017 World Development Report, to shape the responsible use of big data for public good.

Robbie Schingler added that, “we're seeing a blurring of lines between public good and private profit.” Making sure institutions are prepared for a digital age is crucial for governments to move forward on big data in a civically responsible manner.

In addition to this panel, the Governance Global Practice along with the big data program organized a pre-summit technical workshop on “big data for better government”. The workshop brought together twenty-five big data experts to share knowledge and develop solution prototypes for various applications in government.